Imagining Everyday Life: Engagements with Vernacular Photography @Lenfest Center for the Arts (Columbia)

JTF (just the facts): This two-day symposium—Imagining Everyday Life: Engagements with Vernacular Photography—was ca collaboration between the Walther Collection; the Center for the Study of Social Difference; and the Barnard Center for Research on Women. Participants in the symposium’s four sessions were:

Session 1 (10/19): Why Vernacular Photography? The Limits & Possibilities of a Field

  • Brian Wallis, the Walther Collection—session chair
  • Ariella Azoulay, Brown University
  • Geoffrey Batchen, University of Wellington
  • Clément Chéroux, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
  • Patricia Hayes, University of Western Cape

Session 2 (10/20): Troubling Portraiture: Photographic Portraits and the Shadow Archive

  • Tina Campt, Barnard College—session chair
  • Nicole Fleetwood, Rutgers University
  • Lily Cho, York University
  • Ali Behdad University of California, Los Angeles
  • Laura Wexler, Yale University

Session 3 (10/20): Performance and Transformation: Photographic (Re)visions of Subjectivity

  • Gil Hochberg, Columbia University—session chair
  • Shawn Michelle Smith, Art Institute of Chicago
  • Sophie Hackett, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
  • Elspeth Brown, University of Toronto
  • Leigh Raiford, University of California, Berkeley

Session 4 (10/20): Space, Materiality, and the Social Worlds of the Photograph

  • Marianne Hirsch, Columbia University—session chair
  • Drew Thompson, Bard College
  • Thy Phu, Western University
  • Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, New York University
  • Deborah Willis, New York University

(Selected panel shots below.)

Comments/Context: What is vernacular photography and what does it do?

Vernacular photography is most often characterized as utilitarian and informal, the kind that portrays particularly well a period, place, or people: family pictures, vacation snapshots, yearbook portraits, even mug shots and evidence photos. The genre also reflects societal structures—sometimes reinforcing them, at other times, resisting them. Vernacular photographs—especially in series or groups, as seen in personal albums or institutional archives—may therefore be analyzed to produce another picture altogether, one with much to tell us about the culture (or subculture) that created them.

Organized by the Columbia University Center for the Study of Social Difference and the Barnard Center for Research on Women in collaboration with the Walther Collection—whose holdings in 19th- and 20th-century photography and photo-based art have recently expanded to include vernacular photographs—this generative symposium coincided with Walther Collection’s current exhibition, “Scrapbook Love Story: Memory and the Vernacular Photo Album”: it is the third in a series entitled “Imagining Everyday Life: Aspects of Vernacular Photography” that examines the social and historical import of the medium. Asked to reflect on vernacular photography’s uses, meaning, and value, twenty speakers, including academics, researchers, and curators, often raised more questions than they answered.

Session 1: Why Vernacular Photography? The Limits & Possibilities of a Field

The conference got underway on Friday evening with some clashing of gears, as Geoffrey Batchen—a writer widely credited with inventing the term “vernacular photography” in the late 1990s—announced that he believed it was no longer useful and should either be abolished altogether or applied to all photographic images, high and low. He pronounced himself particularly uncomfortable with how it has come to describe a class of collectibles, and indeed, the audience included a number of dealers, who did brisk business during the breaks.

Batchen’s questioning of the conference’s use of the word “vernacular” was picked up by a number of speakers in the next day’s sessions. But two the evening’s other presenters, essayist Ariella Azoulay and researcher Patricia Hayes, introduced a line of thought perhaps more valuable. Azoulay’s paper—accompanied by 20th-century images of Zulu artifacts in the British Museum and 19th-century photographs of kidnapped Basuto and Hottentot children (essentially advertisements for their suitability as mine workers or housemaids)—focused on the click of the camera’s shutter, which, she posits, severs the connection between the subject depicted and its original place in the world.

Patricia Hayes, who also took on the use of photography to reassign subjects visually, showed a series of colonial photographs of African kings, each taken after the ruler’s surrender or arrest and thus, according to Hayes, “provincializing” them through photography. The evening’s real question appeared to be not so much whether “vernacular” was an outmoded term but how—in the words of Tina Campt, director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women, who weighed in during the discussion period—the term might create a barrier to thinking about compulsion and coercion in the context of the everyday.

Session 2: Troubling Portraiture: Photographic Portraits and the Shadow Archive

Campt presided over Saturday’s morning session, which focused on Alan Sekula’s idea of the “shadow archive”—the all-inclusive body of images that positions individuals’ place in society, and its variously repressive or honorific uses. Though presenters had been asked to respond to items in the Walther Collection, two of the most electrifying speakers used personal photographs in their talks, to powerful effect. Nicole Fleetwood, an associate professor in the Department of American Studies at Rutgers University, is currently at work on a book concerning the visual culture of mass incarceration; in addition to early mug shots of white prisoners and photographs taken by inmates in the 1980s during a short-lived arts program at Lorton Penitentiary in Baltimore, she showed prison studio photos of incarcerated members of her own family. Like many other presenters, she took a cue from Batchen, questioning whether “vernacular” is a useful category to talk about images of unfreedom. What does the everyday, mean, she asked, in a carceral state?

UCLA professor Ali Behdad shared photographs—printed from glass plates given to him by his mother—taken by his grandfather in Iran. Showing his grandfather and other male relatives surrounded by Western items such as clocks, guns, and binoculars, the images valorize the men as self-fashioned and modern. At the same time, however, they reaffirm traditional patriarchal values: while Behdad’s mother remembers her father taking pictures of adult female family members without their veils, the only one found among the glass plates was one in which the image of the woman has been obliterated, shielding her public gaze. Even when underage daughters appear, they are positioned at the edges of the family group. Perhaps, in Behdad’s words, some photographs cannot be interpreted solely in terms of agency and resistance but call for a more nuanced examination.

Scholar Laura Wexler brought the discussion back to the idea of the photograph’s freezing its subjects in space and time by introducing the concept of the “fix”—both in the sense of making an image permanent and of supplying a remedy. Presenting horrific pictures of mental asylum inmates taken in the 19th century, she noted that by getting the subjects to look at something beyond the frame, the photographer made them look crazier. She postulated that the images’ purpose was, in part, to reassure ordinary citizens that the problem of insanity had been “fixed” though institutionalization. Permanence, she suggested, is a photograph’s main characteristic. A photograph, according to Wexler, “settles affairs and covers over insurgencies.” How, she asked, might this fixity be undone?

Session 3: Performance and Transformation: Photographic (Re)visions of Subjectivity

To introduce the third panel, which addressed performativity in the vernacular photograph, Columbia professor Gil Hochberg also presented a family photo—one of her as a child, taken immediately after she got a longed-for boyish haircut and sweater recalling that of her hero, Mr. Rogers. To an outsider, as she pointed out, this history is invisible. So what is the role of performance in personal photos—as opposed to art made by such photographers as Cindy Sherman and Catherine Opie?

Shawn Michelle Smith, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, picked up this question, relating it to the ideas of fixity, freezing, and capture with mention of freed slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the most photographed man of the 19th century. With Emancipation, there came a demand for positive images of black people, but such demands, Smith reminded us, imposed their own constraints. Perhaps more than any other citizen of his time, Douglass was aware when posing that a photo could be a tool for self-representation, it was also, once taken, an unalterable fact.

The role of photography in the formation of community was the subject of Canadian curator Sophie Hackett’s lecture; in the course of researching pictures in the Walther Collection of a transvestite called Bobbie—who frequented Casa Susanna, an upstate New York retreat for cross dressers during the 1960s—Hackett discovered evidence, in stories and snapshots, of an underground network of trans men. Likewise, Elspeth Brown connected the subject of her presentation—how the physique or “muscle” photographs of the 1950s and ’60s were marketed to homosexual men—to the emergence of a gay public, and eventually, the gay liberation movement.

UC Berkeley professor Leigh Raiford compared a photo album created by Eldridge Cleaver’s wife while the family was living in exile in Algiers to a G.I.’s photo album recording the visit of Miss Black America to troops in Vietnam. Both are narratives made by African Americans living abroad, but while one is what Raiford dubs an act of black feminist futurity, the other, in which the performer is the object of the male narrator’s gaze—is more disturbing. Like many panelists, she concluded that photography might serve as both a tool of oppression and an act of survival—sometimes within the same framework.

Session 4: Space, Materiality, and the Social Worlds of the Photograph

The last session of the day was notable for an incantatory presentation by Canadian scholar Thy Phu, who considered two vintage photo albums, one from America and one from South Vietnam. She suggested that in the first, made in early 20th century America, snapshots cut into decorative shapes literally shape the idea of family. The second, a record of a South Vietnamese officer’s military life that Phu bought in Ho Chi Min City, photographs of military life would have been proof, perhaps fatal, of the maker’s prior loyalties. He or his family disposed of it, Phu guesses, after the Communist takeover in 1975. For her, such collections of pictures may contain histories that have been lost or, as in post-war Vietnam, deformed.

What made this symposium so exciting were the avenues it opened to further discussion. Is “vernacular” still a viable term? What can everyday photographs promise, and in what ways do they capture histories that would otherwise remain hidden? What are the limits of self-fashioning? How can a language be developed to speak of this material other than aesthetically? How do such photographs move between the art and nonart worlds? What about pleasure? What about gaps—in knowledge, in intent, in reception and distribution? Most important, how can the fixity of the photograph be reconciled with emerging identities?

This last question—as well as the presence of dealers and the underwriting of the event by a private collection—led me to ask myself something that never came up during the two days of discussion: What about vernacular photographs that have never been objects? What about holding a future symposium that addresses such immaterial images as training sets for machine learning, eBay photos, dating site portraits, Instagram posts, and, crucially, SnapChat selfies, which promise, in the words of social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson, a “liquid” rather than a “solid” self? And will the Walther Collection sponsor it?

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